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Wednesday, 12 September 2007 00:00

A potter’s calling: For Sarah Rolland, the process is as rewarding as the product

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By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer

Sarah Rolland first connected with clay on an emotional level. With lunch plans to meet a friend who was taking a course in Haywood Community College’s craft program, Rolland walked into the school’s pottery studio — her curiosity immediately was piqued.

“I was like, ‘What is that?’” Rolland recalled.

The clay’s smell reminded her of the lakes in Florida, where she was from. Then 26, with a young daughter and little by the way of a career path, she quickly enrolled in the school’s two-year program.

“I just was clueless until that moment,” she said.

Studying under pottery instructor Gary Clontz, Rolland challenged herself to master the art form’s techniques.

“I would put my nose to the wheel and throw it and cut it off and throw it and cut it off,” she said of her first pots.

Clontz told her that at some point, she was going to have to keep something.

But it was nailing down the craft, learning how to control the cylinder of clay as it rose from the wheel, that allowed Rolland to start getting creative with her shapes. It was through this process that she found her own distinctive style — to be “creatively true” to herself. It’s a phrase that the potter recently turned associate minister at her church, equates with a God-given talent and artistic voice.

“It’s totally unfruitful to do something that’s not who you are,” she said. “It just looks like a mess.”

However, it took four more years of making pottery that aimed predominately to be functional, before Rolland started exploring how those same items could become creative works. Her works sold not just as serving bowls, but as décor. Her pitcher could pour tea, or hold flowers. Her platters could serve biscuits, or be hung above the mantel.

Now, 20 years after her introduction to clay, Rolland has found her groove. Perched on a stool facing a window fan and the undulating hills of Haywood County’s Bethel community, Rolland presses her fingers into wet clay, shaping handles and smoothing their edges to meld with that of an earlier thrown platter. She carves out organic leaves and waves, decorating the vessel’s interior before placing it on a shelf behind her to dry.

Over the years she’s had five different glaze presentations on her pots — a radical number to some potters, not enough to others.

“Initially I really, really looked for something that people would buy,” Rolland said.

One of those glazes though has stuck with her. It was something she began using while a student at HCC.

“I doubt I’m ever going to stop,” she said.

She spends about six to seven hours in her studio each day, Monday through Friday, and sometimes Saturdays. So much time alone has given her time to think. And she has asked herself — does she even like her pots? If she could look at her works and not know she had done them, would she like them?

“I don’t know,” she says with a smile, seemingly wistful for the answer.

It takes Rolland about six weeks to make a kiln load. But once the works are done — they’re done. End of story, in the box, out the door, on to the next kiln load. There are a few she remembers fondly, but she doesn’t have pictures.

There is the set of candleholders she’s kept. A woman had specially requested them to be made to match another piece. Rolland obliged, despite the fact that it wasn’t the type of work she normally did. The woman sent the candleholders back with a taped on note — “I like this one.” It’s Rolland’s personal reminder of what she does, and what she does not do, of the difference between handcrafted and mass-produced.

In 1991, Rolland was accepted as a member of the Southern Highlands Craft Guild. The Guild consists of a juried membership of more than 900 craftspeople from a nine-state region that includes counties within the Appalachian mountain area of Kentucky, Tennessee, the Virginias, the Carolinas, Georgia, Maryland and Alabama. Membership in the organization is regarded as an achievement in one’s chosen craft.

“That opened up the heavens for me,” Rolland said.

She sells her work through all five of the Guild’s shops along the Blue Ridge Parkway, and also participates in the Guild’s twice yearly show at the Asheville Civic Center. Her work is available at Different Drummer Pottery in Maggie Valley, as well as galleries in Asheville, Knoxville and Sevierville and online.

Rolland hopes to move closer to Waynesville and open a gallery/studio that would provide emerging artists with a place to experiment with different types of pottery and firing techniques. Her home and studio in Bethel are for sale — a move that marks the first step in making the seven-year-old vision a reality.

For now though, she is happy experimenting and perfecting what she’s got. As she unwraps another drying vessel from its plastic covering — a tall vase — she holds its cool, damp side to her face, briefly closes her eyes and smiles.

“I love these,” she says. “These are new.”

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